Can a woman do the job? Introducing a gender perspective on legislative oversight

With women’s increasing presence in political offices, the appearance of European democracies has been changing drastically during the last decades. Even in the most powerful institution, the government, the gender gap in appointments has been diminishing. However, female ministers are still discriminated during their careers. Their chances to head ministries, for instance, is often limited to portfolios with low levels of influence and prestige that receive few financial resources and attention by the media. Those who are in charge of selecting the members of the government, usually party leaders, tend to ascribe men and women aspirants different competencies. It seems evident that women will continue to face such systematic disadvantages once they have received a ministry, in particular by the actors monitoring their daily work. Parliamentarians have the responsibility and privilege to hold the executive accountable for its actions by exercising their right to legislative oversight. If legislators fulfil this function more rigorously when dealing with a man compared to a woman minister, additional costs for the latter emerge that the men do not have to bear. The women would have to invest more time into accountability-related instead of policy-making tasks and risk a loss of reputation and trustworthiness which decreases their chances to get policy endeavors enacted as well as to be promoted to higher offices in the future. This project will be the first one to shed light on legislative oversight from a gender perspective by answering the following questions: Do parliamentarians monitor women ministers differently than menones? And if so, to what extent, why, and under which conditions is this the case?

As a first contribution, we will develop a theoretically grounded framework in the course of this project that formulates explicit expectations about the role of gender for the way parliamentarians monitor the government. We propose that how legislators make use of their legislative oversight competencies depends on the extent to which the actual minister deviates from their conception of an ideal office-holder. According to this rational, parliamentarians evaluate government members based on their factual qualifications and expected abilities triggered by gender and other stereotypes. As a consequence of traditional role models that define politicians as carrying masculine traits, legislators should monitor female ministers more tightly than their male colleagues. Beyond this broad expectation, two additional factors could lead to gender biased behavior during legislative oversight: the policy domain of the ministry and legislators’ sex. Women’s ability to lead might be less challenged in policy areas such as family, education, or health that match their gender’s area of responsibility according to traditional role distributions. If heading the ministries of finance, interior, or external affairs, by contrast, female officeholders could face considerable doubts about their competencies as a consequence of gender stereotypes. The impact of legislators’ gender, in turn, is less straight forward. On the one hand, menparliamentarians might screen women ministers particularly carefully because men tend to be less aware of their prejudices than women. On the other hand, women parliamentarians could be overcritical of office-holders with the same sex, because they fear their own credibility will be questioned if women in the executive perform poorly.

The second main contribution of this project will be to reveal the extent to which these propositions occur in reality by studying Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, and the United Kingdom after 1945. To trace the effect of ministers’ gender on parliamentarians’ monitoring activity, we zoom into cases in which a government member was replaced within a given cabinet by someone of the opposite sex. This innovative approach has the advantage that many factors that shape legislators’ oversight activity, such as their substantial interest in the policy area during a specific term, the cabinet composition, or the party affiliation of ministers, remain the same. The analyses hence only have to take alternative explanations into account that change with the minister as well as factors that reinforce or diminish the strength of the effect of the gendered variables. In a large-N analysis, we will investigate all 150 replacements with sex changes in the six countries. For that purpose, the content and tone of parliamentary questions by legislators to the cabinet members serves as indicator for parliamentarians’ legislative oversight activity. We will analyze whether, to what extent and under which conditions legislators revise their questioning strategy as the minister is being replaced. Afterwards, we are planning to conduct six in-depth studies of minister replacement. For each of these cases, we will interview a total of 15 parliamentarians to uncover how they explain their own behavioural changes. Additionally, this component of the study will move beyond formal monitoring mechanisms and take informal processes into account. Overall, this mixed-methods design allows us to uncover the patterns of gendered executive oversight as well as to explain why they occur.

In the light of these contributions, this project stands to provide innovative insights about the obstacles women ministers face compared to menones after the selection to the government and the determinants that drive gender biased behaviour of members of parliament. It will also enhance our understanding of barriers to women’s effectiveness in political office more broadly. Furthermore, the project will reveal to what extent ministers’ characteristics, exemplified by gender, but potentially also age, ethnicity, or political experience, explain why under similar conditions some ministers fail where others succeed.

Project Team

Head of Project:
Prof. Dr. Corinna Kröber

Lena Stephan

Student Assistant:
Lena Elsa Dröse

Project Duration:

Fritz Thyssen Stiftung



Prof. Dr. Corinna Kröber
Department for Political Science and Communication Studies
Junior Professorship for Comparative Politics